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Tribeca: Documentary Goes Inside the Secret World of N.Y. Times Obit Writers

There are questions every famous person wonders, like, how many ugly pictures are there of me on the Internet, and has the New York Times already written my obituary?

The answer for most people is no. Although the Times has about 1,700 “advances,” or drafts on file, the paper typically starts an obituary if someone is an octogenarian, has been in and out of Cedars-Sinai recently, or has a well-publicized drug problem.

As papers across the country run fewer daily obituaries, those tasked with summarizing a life in 800 words for the history books are becoming a rarer breed. A new documentary, “Obit,” directed by Vanessa Gould, screening this week at the Tribeca Film Festival focuses on the New York Times obituary department. Like the 2011 doc “Page One” that centered on the Times media desk, “Obit” offers a fly-on-the-wall look at the “death beat.”

Director Vanessa Gould stumbled on the subject when her friend Eric Joisel, a French paper sculptor, and subject of her previous film, “Between the Folds,” died. Gould alerted papers around the country to Joisel’s death, and received a call from the New York Times’ veteran obituary writer, Margalit Fox.

“[Margalit] asked me guiding questions about his life and I tried to map out the salient path,” Gould said. “It made me really think about what the New York Times was doing with its obituary page and why they would commit pretty valuable journalistic real estate to an unknown French paper artist. Even after the obit ran, it lingered with me.”

Gould approached the Times to see if they would participate in a film, and six years after Joisel’s obituary ran, the documentary premiered at Tribeca.

The film explores how writers craft these pieces, and how editors decide what is newsworthy. The paper’s general rule of thumb is if you made news in your life, your death will also be news.

“The household names, the Hollywood stars, the sports stars, those kinds of people are pretty obvious to us, and their fame alone will get them a large obituary when the time comes,” William McDonald, obituaries editor at the Times, said.

But, as the film explores, editors also look for lesser-known figures who made a lasting impact.

“We look at people who may not be as prominent but otherwise did something really important, and meaningful, who may deserve the attention even if they didn’t get a lot of it in their lifetime,” McDonald said. “We look for people who changed the way we live.”

 Like most major news outlets, the editors prepare advances for prominent people. Which means they are often weighing how likely it is someone could die.

“How old they are is a factor. If they are in the middle of their career we may not want to do something too soon, especially if they have more years to go, so we tend to write them when they are older and their body of work is done, and we can sit back and assess the full story and not have to go back and touch it up every three months,” McDonald said. “Risk factors, if you are living a kind of life on the edge, maybe doing some things you shouldn’t be doing, or if you are the President of the United States in a high security position, that will be a factor for us.”

The paper gets word someone has died from all sorts of sources including family members, TMZ, agents and publicists.

“For politicians, and especially Hollywood stars, if you had of flack in life, they will do this one last act of spin for you in death,” Fox said. “We have literally gotten glossy press kits with 8 x 10 photos for the dearly departed.”

It’s easier to predict the demise of the elderly, but the paper has recently been caught off guard by several deaths like David Bowie, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and despite several brushes with death, Amy Winehouse.

“We discovered [Philip Seymour Hoffman’s] death on a Sunday morning — it was Super Bowl Sunday two years ago, and I was throwing a Super Bowl party and I had to leave my own party to write the obit,” Bruce Weber said.

Weber went into the office, and happened to call an acquaintance of Hoffman who had found the body. The paper sent a reporter to the actor’s apartment, and Weber dialed his theater sources. As he had for thousands of other subjects, Weber spent the day quickly researching Hoffman’s career.

“Everybody is going to die,” Weber said. “The Times is becoming the last place in American journalism where acknowledgements of worthy lives and newsworthy lives can be acknowledged.”

The film does not currently have distribution, and is being sold by Cinetic.

 

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